Can’t Punctuate Dialogue? Consider the Sentence

Whereas everyone is welcome to write without a clue—you do have a computer, after all—unless you start with a strong foundation and build from there, your lack of understanding is going to cost you.

Recently a student of mine expressed strong irritation when I suggested she learn to punctuate. Yes, I really am that annoying person. Well, the next time I went through her writing, I restrained myself from spending the time and effort on such minor matters as how her sentences were put together. I should simply presume people will be happy to pay for an edit rather than learn some of the basics of writing.

I thought I might start here with the sentence, really for a reason that has to do with punctuating dialogue—the issue on my mind right now. Why? Because while line editing, I’ve found so many examples of a certain glitch that boils down to a mere misunderstanding of what a sentence is. Now, straightaway to it. (Of course this isn’t a complete sentence, but that’s beside the point…)

Here we go—and please approach this believing that comprehension will be easy and you’re sure to grasp what I’m saying:

“Yes, you see, but I’m from the future. Not just my future, but your future too,” Nora swallowed and her heart pounded, nearly pushing out of her chest. She wasn’t sure that Jake would take her seriously.

Okay, that’s part one of the mistake I’m discussing. The question is, where does that second sentence end? With a comma, we indicate a sentence will go on. Therefore, what is the punctuation here saying? It’s saying that the sentence is:

Not just my future, but your future too, Nora swallowed and her heart pounded, nearly pushing out of her chest.

Does that look like a sentence to you? It’s not a sentence—it’s a mess. The hero of our story is the editor, who rushes in and places a period at the actual end of the sentence:

“Yes, you see, but I’m from the future. Not just my future, but your future too PERIOD” Nora swallowed and her heart pounded, nearly pushing out of her chest.

AHA! Now we have packaged the actual sentences separately. And that’s why we don’t use a comma with actions or explanations after the dialogue. We do not by kneejerk put a comma before the end-quote mark. Because we don’t know yet if the sentence has ended. Maybe yes, maybe no.

“Yes, you see, but I’m from the future. Not just my future, but your future too,” Nora said PERIOD She swallowed, and her heart pounded, nearly pushing out of her chest.
How simple is that? We have to know where the sentence ends. At the end of the sentence, we place a period. Otherwise, we’re continuing on.

Here’s part two of the glitch.

“Yes, you see, but I’m from the future. Not just my future, but your future too.” Nora said. She swallowed, and her heart pounded, nearly pushing out of her chest.

Thus the person who thinks the sentence is simply ended before the “Nora said” creates a separate sentence where none is wanted. This individual doesn’t realize that the quoted dialogue flows on to the attribution.

I’m not saying that this individual is you—probably not, and you probably stopped reading when you saw where I was going with this. Oh, well. But maybe I’ve worked off a little steam.

The error—this set of errors—is extremely common. I just edited a 500-page novel in which the author avoided the mistake perhaps three or four times. Don’t be that person.
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Whatever your habitual errors are, punctuation, writing style, or even not understanding what the agents/editors are looking for, if you’d like to correct your flaws, take a class with me at Writer’s Digest: https://www.writersonlineworkshops.com/. Upcoming are Fundamentals of Fiction, Writing the Mystery, and 12 Weeks to a First Draft. Or for some less-expensive guidance, you might want to download The Naked Writer for your Kindle at Amazon. Yes, I work with clients privately. Send a comment here.

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Can’t Punctuate Dialogue? Consider the Sentence

THE NAKED WRITER: More About Paragraphs

I posted a piece earlier last year that gave some good reasons for and advice on breaking paragraphs, but I see I missed something important. Recently, I reviewed a couple of posted assignments by students and a novel from an editing client that showed the same pattern in each.

Let me give an example.

“Get out of my way or you’re going to get hurt,” Joel warned Beanie. Beanie just wanted to try to help.

“I’m not moving until I talk some sense into you,” Beanie told him.

What’s the problem? The writer needs to let Beanie have her own paragraph—give the girl some privacy. So the paragraphing here would change if we followed some logic.

“Get out of my way or you’re going to get hurt,” Joel warned Beanie.

Beanie just wanted to try to help. “I’m not moving until I talk some sense into you,” she told him.

Paragraphing is a way of sensibly structuring your writing. What is more reasonable—having information about the speaker in her own paragraph, or using her information in a paragraph about someone else? Yes, package the information next to her speech, not next to his.

My other observation of what people do is related.

What I also see is that people like to break paragraphs for no reason if dialogue is involved.

To give you an example.

Joel was never the calmest of men.

“Get out of my way or you’re going to get hurt,” Joel warned Beanie.

Why separate commentary from the dialogue as if the dialogue needs a paragraph all to itself. It doesn’t. A paragraph with narration can certainly tolerate some accompanying dialogue.

Joel was never the calmest of men. “Get out of my way or you’re going to get hurt,” Joel warned Beanie.

If you can, scroll down and see my original post on paragraphing. But I’ll summarize the main point here. One reason we break paragraphs is to put more white space on the page and make the page look more readable. Of course we break at appropriate spots, but break we must or the page will seem grey and intimidating.

Now the point in this post in front of you now is that you need to group the sentences in your paragraph according to logic and why you might not need a paragraph break just because you have a piece of dialogue.

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Come take one of my classes at Writer’s Digest and learn more—and download my style guide, The Naked Writer, at Amazon. I’m an award-winning writer—I won an award for my Writing the Mystery (take a mystery writing class with me) and I won an Edgar for a short story of mine. I have a mystery writing class coming up as well as 12 Weeks to a First Draft (both online with a couple more coming at Writer’s Digest University). Oh, next up is Showing vs. Telling, starting on 8/3/2017.

THE NAKED WRITER: More About Paragraphs

The Naked Writer: Writing Numbers

Unless we’re using Roman numerals—which are still in fashion here and there—we’re using Arabic numerals or writing the numbers out. That sounds simple. Not so. But I don’t intend to go in total depth here. (Numbers are quite a subject, really.) I’ll give you the bare bones–and don’t forget that the style guides update yearly.

Having been a business journalist for many years, I like to use The Associated Press Stylebook.

AP says, as a general rule, to spell out numbers under 10 and then use the numeral. But, AP adds, never start a sentence with a number unless the number specifies a year.

*Bob and his wife took nine children to the park on Wednesday and 11 children to the park on Friday.
*Eleven children proved to be a challenge for the two.
*1914 was the year in which this building gained a certificate of occupancy.

When writing about whatever might be first through ninth, we spell the designations. Then above ninth, we again switch to the numerals.

*Bob sat in the eighth row then moved to the 10th row.

However, in some specific cases we apply the numerals early on.

*Judge Bob Smith sat on the 9th Circuit.

Money goes by numerals with symbols unless cents .

*Bob threw $3 into the pot.
*Bob later threw 30 cents into the pot.
*Bob won $2 million in the Friday lottery.

To return to the question of Roman numerals, they’re used with people who are numbered, such as Elizabeth II or numbered events, such as World War I.

Complicated enough? Well here comes CMOS: The Chicago Manual of Style’s decision regarding writing numbers. As I noted in the last blog piece, CMOS is used for academic writing as well as books (mostly nonfiction).

CMOS says for us to spell out whole numbers but use numerals for more complex numbers.

*I was introduced to one hundred boys at the school, although they were noisy enough to sound like three hundred thousand boys. The principal told us 337 boys had graduated in the first several years the school had been open.

Strangely, CMOS offers an alternative. You can use the AP style, and spell numbers through nine and then go with numerals after that. CMOS though won’t let you use a number for the year when you open a sentence.

*Nineteen fourteen was the year this building opened for occupancy.

Numbers, obviously, are complex, and often we may find ourselves fudging a bit. Or at least I do. (Is that so bad?) Because numbers are one hard nut to crack, that’s why I wanted to pin down some of the rules myself. At some point in the future, I’ll go into dates and times if I can work up the nerve.

As I said in my last blog piece on style guides, most important is that you’re consistent. If you have a contract with a publisher, however—whether for an article or a book—ask for their style guide.

The Naked Writer by G. Miki Hayden—me—is not a style guide at all, but a punctuation and grammar resource with style “advice” for all sorts of writers. You should have this. Get your Kindle copy on Amazon

And take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University. I pinky promise not to fuss about the way you write your numbers. Coming up soon at https://www.writersonlineworkshops.com/are :

5/25/2017 – 07/06/2017 Writing the Mystery. I won a short story Edgar and was on the board of Mystery Writers of America for several years. I have an award-winning book in print titled Writing the Mystery.

6/08/2017 – 08/31/2017 12 Weeks to a First Draft. This is a great class for the focused person writing a novel. I can help with the ground-level writing as well as the overall scheme of the story, and then provide insights into what’s happening with the markets these days.

06/29/2017 – 08/10/2017 Writing the Paranormal Novel. Paranormal covers a lot of ground. My Question Woman & Howling Sky (at Amazon) falls into several categories, including paranormal.

The Naked Writer: Writing Numbers

The Naked Writer: Do It in Style

Just about everything in writing goes by style standards/rules. This includes what words can be abbreviated, what words capitalized, how numbers should be written, and so on and on. However, those principles aren’t as firm as they might sound. The rules quite often vary in line with “house style,” that is, according to the preferences of a particular publisher (the entity or the person), whether of magazines, journals, or of books.

The most important approach to take in your own writing is to be consistent. And remember that later some copy editor may well modify the conventions you’ve used to produce your material (or you might even be required to make the changes). The copy editor works using a well-worn printout of the in-house standards, and for small press you may have to print a set of imperatives yourself.

The Associated Press Stylebook (the AP stylebook) is used mostly by journalists. It’s a good general stylebook, and I refer to it a lot even though book publishing is said to use the less-simple-to-work-with The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS).

But of course, that depends. Academic writing generally goes by CMOS, but, not always… A psychologist client of mine says she’s guided by the American Psychological Association (APA) rules. Well, of course she would be… Her doctoral thesis was written to APA style. Similarly, many folks use the style guide from the Modern Language Association, the MLA, mostly for research papers in the arts and humanities.

Well known, too, are Words into Type, by Marjorie E. Skillin, and A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations by Kate L. Turabian, more commonly known as “Turabian.”

Journalists also go by The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and The Wall Street Journal Guide to Business Style and Usage.

Very widely know is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White (often simply called “Strunk and White.”) This is a great little book but really might not have all the details you want.

You’ll additionally find many other style guides, most of them specialty guides for a particular field or even country.

All too little known is The Naked Writer by G. Miki Hayden—me—not a definitive style guide at all, but a punctuation and grammar resource with style “advice” for all sorts of writers. You should have this, too. Get your Kindle copy on Amazon.

The point of all the above? Writers ought to own at least a couple of style guides. Whatever you’re writing, you’ll find a stylebook for that. I do suggest you use a guide and definitely remain consistent in the style you use. Then if you should be so lucky as to place your work, prepare for the in-house copy editor to bring the material into line with the publisher’s own guidelines. Or, again, you might have to do that yourself. Best of luck.

I hope to see you in one of my classes. I’ve had many, many short stories as well as novels in print and in ebook format and can give you sensible insights as to how to improve your writing.

Coming up at Writer’s Digest University https://www.writersonlineworkshops.com/:
5/18/2017 – 08/10/2017 Fundamentals of Fiction. Take a shortcut, to avoid the long path of learning by rejection slip.

5/25/2017 – 07/06/2017 Writing the Mystery. I won a short story Edgar and was on the board of Mystery Writers of America for several years. I have an award-winning book in print titled Writing the Mystery.

6/08/2017 – 08/31/2017 12 Weeks to a First Draft. This is a great class for the focused person writing a novel. I can help with the ground-level writing as well as the overall scheme of the story and then provide insights into what’s happening with the markets these day

The Naked Writer: Do It in Style

The Naked Writer: Job Role/Relationship Role

My students, bless them, are my source of writing goofs. They very much want to write—so how did they wind up making this many mistakes? Well, not every one of them makes the same mistakes, but a lot of them make particular ones… I think (a) they sleep-walked through some of their high school classes, and/or (b) their teachers, not knowing any better themselves, didn’t instruct them properly.

I believe the second is what happened to me. And I actually worked as a writer and editor for many years before learning certain style standards. Yes. I think teaching at all levels is hit and miss, and when language and punctuation rules are missed, our common culture ends up with a mishmash in books and publications.

The one advantage I had in grade school was that we learned to diagram sentences. That was a big plus. But a big minus was a lack of training in mechanics. Mechanics means all those (mostly) mechanical actions we take such as putting a period at the end of a sentence or punctuating dialogue.

Mechanics, though mostly mechanical, can still leave a certain amount of room for decision, and not all decision guidelines in regard to mechanics and style are that clear. They require a knowledge base, but also a logical putting of two and two together as well as an educated ear for how punctuation and other elements sound on the page.

So if some editor—maybe me—has perhaps marked up your manuscript, don’t feel inadequate. Writing is an art form like any other, and we always have to be in the process of upgrading our skills. Just go right ahead and upgrade.

The particular subject I had in mind today was, as I say in the title, the question of job roles and relationship roles. The difficulty many students and clients encounter is that they don’t know which job titles and relationship titles to capitalize. The answer is actually a simple one, but even then isn’t always followed.

In reading an article in a major magazine, I was appalled by a certain set of errors. And I hadn’t too long before read a piece by the copy editor at that publication telling how carefully she applies the rules. Well, if this editor was applying house style, the style for the publication is an odd one.

The magazine piece I’m referring to capitalized both President and Presidential. The commonly accepted rule, however, is that we don’t capitalize job roles. We would say: “The president gave a speech tonight. Though he may sometimes try to sound presidential, this evening he was off the mark.”

We don’t capitalize “president,” unless the word is used as part of a name or as a name. Here’s an example:
Hoover, elected president in 1928, later presided over the country’s deepest-ever economic depression. Though painted as cruel and uncaring, President Hoover made efforts to aid business, farming, and the unemployed.

Naturally, if this is the case for “president,” the same rule applies to other offices, from generals to justices of the Supreme Court.

“Excuse me, General, but you’re wanted at the White House.” The colonel was happy to see the general go.

John Jay served as chief justice of the Supreme Court until he was elected governor of New York and then resigned from the court. Chief Justice John Marshall died in office.

Similarly, relationship roles aren’t capitalized unless they’re part of a name or used as a name.

I asked Mother not to come to my graduation as the event would be tiring for her. I told the guys in advance that my mother wasn’t coming, but that I’d asked Uncle Steven, who would enjoy going to lunch with us. He was my favorite uncle and a very cool guy.

I think that’s clear and easy to follow, but for questions, email me: GMikiH@yahoo.com. Or download the Kindle version of my style and composition guide, The Naked Writer at Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Naked-Writer-G-Miki-Hayden-ebook/dp/B019PUPZN2/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1490930021&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Naked+Writer+by+G.+Miki+Hayden

Or take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University.

The Naked Writer: Job Role/Relationship Role

The Naked Writer: Vary Sentence Structure

This past week I edited a novel written in a way meant to echo the method used by a handful of successful mystery authors.

He took the stairs down. He walked into the kitchen. He stood at the refrigerator. He got out a pitcher of cold water.

I understood that the writer was trying to replicate a sparse, clipped, detailed style that has netted several lucky crime fiction folks both money and fame.

However, in going back to the originals, as I just did using the “Look Inside” function on Amazon, I found that the innovators showed much more fluidity in the writing than this recent follower. I might describe both the trendsetters’ style and the imitator’s attempt using the same words, but the more inventive work went by the creators’ artistic instincts (not to mention an undoubted later lot of heavy editing). What is produced by the originators is an effect—and not just a grating one.

Let me also say that I see this same writing approach from any number of naïve newcomers who aren’t at all aware of what they’re doing. They simply only know how to present short and simple declarative sentences.

So what’s wrong with producing one plain sentence after the other with a subject followed by verb?

Easy answer. A repeated sentence structure, as with any number of various recurring elements in a literary work, is simply boring to the ears. Yes, we read with our ears just as if we were listening to music.

In taking up a basic writing strategy, those of us slinging together words for human consumption are called upon to provide variation.

He took the stairs down. He walked into the kitchen. He stood at the refrigerator. He got out a pitcher of cold water.

Jerry took the stars down two at time. In the kitchen, he pulled a pitcher of cold water from the refrigerator. Eager to quench his thirst, he filled a glass to the top and drank.

Vary your sentence structure. Don’t bore our ears.

Dragging a chair behind him, he went into the drawing room. Listening to the music being played in there, he stopped. Sitting in the chair for a minute, he found himself tapping his toes to the beat.

Dragging a chair behind him, he went into the drawing room where he stopped and listened to the music being played. He sat for a moment and tapped his toes to the beat.

Vary all types of sentence structures, and when you edit your own work, fiction or nonfiction, listen for whatever elements are repeated—and rewrite.

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Want more writing suggestions? Take a class I teach at Writer’s Digest University or download The Naked Writer on Amazon. Need an edit? Contact me at GMikiH@yahoo.com. Want to read a novel of mine? Try Question Woman & Howling Sky if you like speculative fiction.

The Naked Writer: Vary Sentence Structure

The Naked Writer–Lay Versus Lie

These are two different verbs. I once actually heard an editor say if she saw an author had confused the verbs, she would reject the manuscript. She had a point. 🙂 I tell students to either find out how the verbs are used or don’t use them. But of course the two are important verbs, and writers want to use them where necessary.

The distinction between the two words is a simple one: Lay, meaning to place something, is a transitive verb—which like all transitive verbs takes an object. Lay the napkins on the table (you wouldn’t say lie the napkins on the table, would you?). Lie, meaning to stretch out, is an intransitive verb (never mind the vocabulary) and never takes an object.

We would “lie down”—no object. We wouldn’t “lay down.”

The misuse of the verb form signals a bit of educational class warfare, explaining the above editor’s prejudice.

Let’s go to the past tense.

I lay (rested) there for quite some time then I remembered I had to lay (place) the napkins on the table.

So the past tense of lie (recline)—lay—is the same word as the present tense of the word for “to place”—lay.

That would seem to be confusing, but only if you don’t have the declension of the verbs in your head.

We don’t say I laid down and I laid there for quite a while. The word “laid” belongs to the verb to lay. (This is one I see a lot.) “I lay down, and I lay there quite a while” would be correct.

I also see “I was laying there,” also incorrect. I was lying there.

Because this is a bit confusing for some, I took this chart from Writer’s Digest (I teach there, so take a class with me at https://www.writersonlineworkshops.com/).

Lay vs. Lie Chart

Infinitive          Present   Past    Past Participle    Present Participle

to lay (place)     lay(s)      laid        laid                  laying
to lie (rest)       lie(s)       lay          lain                  lying

I ask him to lay the silverware on the table. After he had laid the knives there and after he laid the spoons there, he lays the forks there. Soon, he is laying the plates on the table as well.

Meanwhile I decide to lie down. I lie on the floor. I lay there for quite a while until I had lain for too long. I was lying in the same position all that time.

Of course we do have another verb “to lie,” which means to tell an untruth. The past tense and the past participle of that verb is “lied.”

We’re clear on all this now, right? If not, do as I suggest my students do—if you don’t understand how to use these two quite different verbs, avoid them. Of course the better choice is to learn the difference. Good luck.

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You can download my style guide The Naked Writer at Amazon.com. Or buy one of my novels in print (or ebooks) there—a middle grade fantasy, Strings; a YA fantasy, The Heroine’s Journey; and an adult science-fiction fantasy, Question Woman & Howling Sky. Contact me at GMikiH@yahoo.com if you need an edit.

The Naked Writer–Lay Versus Lie